You’re a solid developer. You’ve built software people use, and it works well for them. Now you want that next step—to lead a team that builds software. But what does a successful tech lead look like, and how can you get there?
Here at Sparkbox, the tech lead position is not a career ladder step: it is a transient role that our developers take on for specific projects. This way of thinking allows us to find the right people for the right project at the right moment in their career.
So What is a Tech Lead?
A tech lead is the right hand to the project manager. A Sparkbox project manager focuses on the client’s overall vision and coaches clients through investment decisions such as priority, implementation order, depth of execution, etc. As a tech lead, you act as an advocate by weighing and discussing options, clearly communicating the state of the project, and thinking about the next steps for the project architecture. As decisions are made, the tech lead works with team members to break down the vision into actionable work that can be executed.
A tech lead is measured by the success of the team. While you are an individual contributor, your focus is often on individual features, on a narrow focus. As a tech lead, your scope is more broad, focusing on the outcomes of the team and how the pieces fit together. This can be a hard adjustment as we attempt to enable others rather than solve problems entirely on our own.
A tech lead is regularly describing the technical vision. A tech lead must be able to both zoom in and zoom out on a project. You need to be able to look in detail into a technical need but also see the bigger picture and how that need fits into the greater vision. As the tech lead changes vantage points, they are continually reiterating the vision.
A tech lead is a model for “how we work together.” For better or worse, when you are given a title with the word “lead” in it, your actions carry more weight. In this, you will be responsible for modeling what working together well looks like since others will be modeling after you.
To sum it up in one thought, a tech lead empowers and unlocks the team through communication, leadership, technical skill, and impact.
Skills of a Tech Lead
When making the leap to a tech lead position, consider what you need to be successful in this new position. Here are a few traits we look for here at Sparkbox.
It goes without saying: you have to be good at what you do. To be a tech lead at Sparkbox, it’s important that you be a “go-to expert” in at least one area of the codebase while also having an awareness of and empathy for other facets. This is important as you look to mentor team members, assist in diagnosing problems, and help guide implementation details.
Similarly, you must be looking to create “seams” in your architecture to allow the team to be productive and collaborate effectively. For example, software design and architecture patterns can allow multiple team members or even multiple teams to build features that integrate without blocking one another. Gary takes on some of these concepts in his video “Decouple Delivery from Release to Enable a Fast Continuous Integration Feedback Loop”.
“Building the right thing” is hard work in software development. One of the most valuable assets you can give the team to help them collaborate on solutions and navigate toward a successful outcome is a robust build and delivery pipeline. As a tech lead, you must be able to advocate for this pipeline and leverage the tools at your disposal to create feedback loops.
Communication and Leadership
Leaders should always be focused on creating new leaders.
In the tech lead role, you are expected to help others achieve their goals. Taking opportunities to clearly and convincingly present ideas, vision, and architecture is a great way to build this skill. Another skill is being able to mentor and teach other developers.
As right hand to the project manager, a tech lead needs to care about things like backlogs, planning efforts, and budgets. These are the tools you will use in partnership with the client and the project manager to navigate the project to success. And as a tech lead, this deep understanding and empathy around constraints, budgets, and timelines give you a vantage point to provide guidance and forecasts as inevitable change appears.
A tech lead must deal effectively with pressure. This means staying positive, empathetic, and persistent when issues arise in the project. But being an effective leader also means being transparent and maintaining healthy relationships with users, clients, and team members. Make sure you frame feedback constructively. And be able to receive feedback from your team throughout the project.
When you take on a leadership role, it comes with opportunities for you to impact both the projects you are on and the people you work with. Impact comes in many forms, but for Sparkbox, the tech lead helps create the technical strategy, architecture plans, and diagrams as well as support team growth and the growth of individuals.
If you are looking to become a tech lead, make a plan for yourself. Ask your manager the skills and experiences you need to be a tech lead and then find ways to improve and create your own growth. Spend time supporting your team members. Or ask your manager to hold you accountable or give you growth opportunities. And don’t forget to build allies and mentors inside and outside your organization. It’s also good practice to create a brag sheet where you can visually share your growth over time.
Making the Leap
While making the leap to tech lead might look intimidating, consider the steps you can take now to prepare for that role. Investigate what makes a great tech lead at your organization and make a plan to develop your skills in those areas. Be proactive and willing to both grow yourself and encourage others to grow. That’s what makes a great tech lead.